The day dawned clear and bright. It was the Saturday before the summer solstice, and everything looked good for an outdoor ritual in the afternoon. A local Pagan group, along with the Inter-Faith Network, planned to hold the event at Wandlebury, an area of parkland to the south of Cambridge. My role as a member of this group began the previous Sunday at our regular monthly meeting.
'Do you have people to call the quarters?' One member was heard to say to the High Priestess.
'I have the two ladies for East and West, but I need two men for North and South. I was thinking of asking Ben and MaW.' She looks at me. 'How do you fancy calling North or South on Saturday?'
'Sure,' I say.
Some explanation seems to be in order. Midsummer is one of the eight main festivals common to most modern Pagan religions. Like the other Sabbats, it is usually celebrated by a ritual to honour the God and Goddess as they are seen at that particular time of year. The ritual structure itself consists of a fairly constant opening and closing, with a core which varies depending on the occasion.
A standard part of the opening and closing of the ritual is known as the calling of the quarters. This part comes just after the casting of the circle, which is conceptually a sphere of energy which encloses the area in which the ritual is to take place, blocking out negative external influences and defining a boundary between the mundane world and that inhabited by the God and Goddess. In order to ensure that the ritual is conducted in safety, at each point of the compass an element is invoked to protect the circle. The invocation consists of a few words and gestures, the exact nature of which vary.
My task is to call the element Fire at the South of the circle. A few days before the ritual, the High Priestess sends me the words and gestures. I print them out, but by Saturday lunchtime I'm growing increasingly dissatisfied with my ability to remember them. Normal pre-performance nerves I suppose.
Since it is an open ritual, and my parents are fairly unfamiliar with my religious practices, they decide to come along to see what's going on. So we have lunch and head to Wandlebury for a 4pm start. Several other people are already there. My parents decide to go for a walk while everyone's gathering, as they don't know anybody else. Unfortunately as it turns out they get lost, and don't return until after the ritual is complete.
Eventually everyone arrives, and we proceed to a pleasant field with a grove of trees in the centre, laden down with ritual equipment. Unfortunately at this point the looming clouds delivered on their promise, and so begins an afternoon of intermittent but heavy rain showers. We decide to hold the ritual under the trees, as there appears to be no danger of lightning, and it's somewhat drier there.
Preparations continue. Eventually we are ready to begin. I've checked my words repeatedly, and I think I know what I have to do. We form into a circle, men and women alternating to enhance the effects of the polarity of the sexes in the energy of the ritual.
We begin with the casting of the circle. An altar has been set up in the East, and upon it is an athame - a ritual dagger. The dagger is taken up and used to draw the circle, moving clockwise, as it reflects the direction in which the sun travels across the sky.
With the circle cast, an invocation is made to Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun. At midsummer, we honour the Sun God, so the words feel very appropriate. Invocation completed, it is time to call the quarters. We begin in the East, with the invocation of the element Air. Then to the South (moving clockwise as always), and it's my turn to invoke Fire. As luck would have it, I don't muck up the words, and even manage to draw the invoking pentagram of Fire correctly in the air before me.
Ancient Elements of the South
Spirits of Fire
I do summon, stir and call thee up
To witness our ritual here today
And guard this sacred Circle.
Hail, and welcome!
And we then proceed to Water in the West, and finally Earth in the North, lighting candles at each quarter to show the presence of the elements.
The High Priestess and High Priest continue the ritual with an explanation of our purpose: to honour the Sun God at the prime of His power, and to witness the life brought forth by the union of the God and the Goddess. They invoke the Goddess and the God, lighting a candle on the altar for each, to share our ritual. We burn herbs in our cauldron to purge negativity and imbalance from our lives, and share a chalice of mead, and cakes made in the shape of the sun. We dance, and chant, and celebrate the solstice and the season.
It comes time to conclude the ritual, as we're all eager for the feasting and making merry which traditionally comes afterwards. We thank the Goddess and the God for their presence, then devoke each of the elements, starting with Air in the East and proceeding to Fire in the South, Water in the West and Earth in the North as we did at the start.
'The circle is open, but never broken' is a common refrain at the end of a ritual, signifying that although we have opened the magic circle which contained the ritual, the union of the participants with each other and with the Goddess and God is preserved.
After the circle is opened, we retrieve the food and drink, eat and chat, and chant and attempt to learn a rather complicated dance taught by our guest chantmaster, who was conveniently available at the appropriate time. It is at about this time that my parents finally show up, having had just about the largest detour possible trying to find their way back. Hopefully they will have better luck next time, but for me it's been an extremely pleasant and fulfilling afternoon.